Huawei HarmonyOS: “Fake it till you make it” meets operating system development


The Android robot mascot tried to disguise himself with fake glasses and a mustache.
Enlarge / What a cute little green robot! Have we ever met?

Huawei is the largest supplier of smartphones in China – and formerly the world – and over the past 18 months, it has learned an important lesson: The company cannot rely on the American supply chain. In 2019, the U.S. government banned U.S. exports to Huawei, preventing the company from accessing most chip and software vendors. Building a phone is difficult without access to key parts and applications. Huawei’s latest figures for Q4 2020 show its phone sales plummeting, down 42% year-over-year.

For this reason, Huawei wants to be independent from the global smartphone supply chain. While the company needs to work on hardware independence, Huawei also needs to break free from Google’s software. So, as many companies have tried before it, Huawei is hoping to make an Android killer.

The company’s attempt to create an internal operating system is called “HarmonyOS” (also known as “HongmengOS” in China). “Version 2” was released in December, bringing “beta” smartphone support to the operating system for the first time. Can Huawei succeed where Samsung’s Windows Phone, Blackberry 10, Sailfish OS, Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, Symbian, MeeGo, WebOS, and Tizen have all tried and failed?

To hear Huawei tell the tale, HarmonyOS is an original in-house creation – a provocative act that will free the company from the influence of American software. The announcement of Huawei’s operating system in 2019 prompted extensive reports in the national media. CNN called HarmonyOS an “Android rival,” and Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group, said on release that HarmonyOS “is completely different from Android and iOS.” Huawei’s President of Consumer Software, Wang Chenglu, repeated the claims last month, saying, “HarmonyOS is not a copy of Android, nor is it a copy of iOS.”

This makes HarmonyOS very interesting. Of course, we had to dive deep.

After accessing HarmonyOS through an extremely invasive registration process, triggering the SDK and emulator, and reviewing the developer’s docs, I can’t come to another conclusion: HarmonyOS is essentially an Android fork. The way Huawei describes the operating system to the press and in developer documents doesn’t seem to have much to do with what the company is actually shipping. The developer’s documents appear almost deliberately written to confuse the reader; any piece of actual shipping code that you’re holding a magnifying glass looks like Android without any major changes.

The phrase “fake it till you make it” is often given as motivational advice, but I’ve never seen it applied to OS development before. If you’ve ever seen a modern Huawei Android phone, HarmonyOS is largely the same … with a few tweaked channels. So while there isn’t much new to see, we can at least dissect HarmonyOS and debunk some of Huawei’s claims about its “brand new” operating system.

But first, a two-day background check ?!

Before we dive into HarmonyOS, we actually need to to have HarmonyOS, which is an incredible problem. It is assumed that some Huawei Android phones like the P40 Pro can be switched to HarmonyOS via some sort of closed beta. This is limited to China, however. For me, getting HarmonyOS meant finding my passport.

For comparison, let’s first talk about how other vendors offer their OS SDKs. For Android, you Google “Android SDK” from any desktop computer, click on the first link and hit the download button. Apple asks developers to own a Mac for the iOS SDK, but from there it only takes a simple trip to the App Store to download Xcode.

Before you can try out Harmony OS, on the other hand, Huawei asks you to pass a two-day background check. They even want a photo of your passport!

Huawei requires you to go to, create an account, and then register to become a developer by passing “Identity Verification”. It means sending Huawei your name, address, email, phone number and photos of your ID (driver’s license or passport) and a photo of a credit card. You then have to wait a business day or two while someone at Huawei manually “reviews” your request. Huawei helpfully notes that it will not charge your credit card.

Huawei’s documents state that “ID card, passport, driver’s license and bank card are used to verify and match your identity information.” OK but Why? Why does Huawei want to know everything about me first? And why does it take two days?

Even if you try to bypass Huawei’s horrible registration process and “hack” the Harmony SDK by downloading it elsewhere, the SDK will not run the emulator until you log in with an account that has passed. the two-day background check. .

Can you imagine what a potential HarmonyOS developer will think when they get to this stage? If you are an established developer in an app ecosystem, it is normal for the owner of the ecosystem to collect credentials and financials. You probably want a developer to be able to charge money for their app, which means you need to be able to transfer money to a bank account, and the ecosystem owner could be responsible for collecting it. taxes. At this moment, however, we are miles away of this situation with HarmonyOS. At this point, which is just downloading the SDK for the first time, your typical downloader will be a curious developer who is just starting to investigate Huawei’s operating system. (Signing up for “Merchant Service” is actually a whole different Huawei process.)


This is a brand new operating system, and Huawei’s stance at this point would generally be one of openness to all potential developers. Google’s anonymous, one-click download for the Android SDK, on ​​Windows, Mac, and Linux, is the model businesses should emulate. Instead, Huawei is making this as difficult as it can be, and it’s easy to imagine a potential developer backing down from the ridiculous and intrusive download process, closing the tab, and reverting to Android and iOS development. This is the worst first impression of an operating system I have ever seen. As a developer, you have to ask yourself if Huawei will still be so difficult to work with in the future.

That said, I did it all.

In the spirit of taking one for the team, I shamefully sent Huawei a photo of my passport and credit card. My information probably went to God knows where in China; it looked like a violation, and you are welcome. After a two-day wait, my social credit score was apparently high enough that I had access to Huawei’s precious operating system. (I hope Beijing doesn’t have a “file” on me now.)

Now, let’s see what we got after all of this effort.

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